How Funders Can Learn from Grassroots Activists and Venture Capitalists to Meet the Moment

by: | Sep 07, 2017

How investors can think like grassroots activists and venture capitalists to meet the moment

I grew up between Bordeaux, France, and Lyme, Connecticut, and spent much of my childhood trying to bring these two worlds together. It started with food. In France, I worked hard to introduce my friends to American food like pumpkin pie; they wondered why anyone would put pumpkin in a dessert. In the U.S., I tried to introduce my friends to french delicacies like fish cheeks — also with little success. What started with food, then expanded to television shows and clothes. Next thing I knew, bringing things from one place to the other was cool. So then I made a habit — and a career — out of building connections between people and worlds.

In my role at New Media Ventures, I’m bringing together Silicon Valley technologists, DC politicos, and investors looking for new projects to fund, and it’s my toughest challenge yet — even harder than convincing a French person to try a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Silicon Valley is quick to diagnose politics as broken and in need of “disruption”. People often tell me in all seriousness, “if so many people don’t vote, it must be because we’re not using design thinking.” On the other side, political insiders are quick to dismiss anyone who hasn’t done their time on a campaign as totally clueless. Until recently, most people in these far-away worlds didn’t understand why politics matters, or how social media could possibly impact elections. It’s now safe to say that that’s no longer the case.

In response to last year’s election, more people than ever are crossing this divide — political insiders are building tech tools, venture capitalists are starting advocacy organizations, and everybody wants to run for office. Groups like Indivisible, Pantsuit Nation, and StayWoke — have been growing faster than Silicon Valley unicorns.

At my Oakland-based progressive venture fund New Media Ventures, our open call for funding this year received five times as many applications as last year. That’s at least 5 times more people working at this problem than a year ago based on our experience alone.

And all of these startups have one thing in common — they need money, and they needed it yesterday. They are being led by people who quit their jobs to do something about our democracy, and are heavily reliant on volunteers who are working nights and weekends. At this point, their savings are running low and they are approaching burn-out. The reality is that they might have to pull back if they can’t raise enough money to keep going.

Now I understand that this moment can be really confusing for funders. There are so many groups — and many have no track record whatsoever. As a result, it’s not really clear what the most effective interventions are. Should people be calling their elected representatives, or sending faxes? Should our focus be hyper-local, on the state level, or on Congress? Do we need more town halls? And wait, what should we be doing about fake news?

Of course it’s a positive development that more people are mobilized than ever before, but too many “resistance” groups receiving funding are like me — middle-aged, middle-class and white. It’s also important to ask: How do I make sure supporting new efforts doesn’t come at the expense of people of color, who have been a critical force for social change in America?

This is where investors need to step up and step in, and be bridge builders themselves. Investors need to combine the creativity of grassroots organizers and the risk-tolerance of venture capitalists, and adapt their strategies to this incredible moment.

Thinking like grassroots organizers means realizing that when there is no map, it’s better to let go of the need to control and to trust the efforts that are bottom-up, nimble, and highly networked to quickly respond to issues and find solutions.

Thinking more like venture capitalists means creating a portfolio of investments so success is measured based on the performance — in terms of impact — of the overall portfolio, not any individual investment which might either be a linchpin in the fights ahead or just somewhat helpful. But when it’s early, you can’t always tell the two apart.

In addition, as funders we really need to get out of our silos. As Nancy Lublinpointed out, many funders respond to startup efforts with: “You don’t fit into our buckets.” Only to leave founders thinking “No shit, it’s new”!

Only by letting go of too much caution, top-down control, and funding silos can funders successfully navigate this moment for maximum impact.

We’ve recently committed to moving $1m to new startups this year, and we’ve started with these 17 groups. Collectively, they need $15 million to keep up their amazing work for the next 12 months. Juicero, by comparison, raised $120m from investors in Silicon Valley. If Silicon Valley can spend $120 million to reinvent juice, I know we can find what we need for our democracy — we just need funders who are ready to let go of more than just their money.